Ivica Zubac’s sixth blocked shot helps save Clippers’ 99-98 win at Houston

Clippers center Ivica Zubac tries to block a layup by Rockets guard Jalen Green.
Clippers center Ivica Zubac tries to block a layup by Rockets guard Jalen Green during the first half Sunday night in Houston.
(Eric Christian Smith / Associated Press)

Two days after he’d watched the final seconds of a taut thriller from the bench, Clippers center Ivica Zubac no longer was a bystander but a barrier with 16 seconds to play Sunday at Houston, the only defender between the basket and a charging Christian Wood with the Clippers clinging to a two-point lead.

The 6-foot-9 Wood held the ball far over his head and leaped for a game-tying basket. Zubac leaped, shooting his right hand into the few inches of leather between Wood’s hands.

The ball was pushed out cleanly. Initially ruled a foul, the play was overturned and deemed Zubac’s career-high sixth block after a replay review.

The Clippers’ eventual 99-98 win in Toyota Center was not officially over until free throws by the Clippers and a missed, potential game-tying three-pointer by Jalen Green with four seconds remaining. But on a night when the Clippers, coach Tyronn Lue said, were “a step slow, didn’t have any pace, didn’t have any speed” in once trailing by 13 to a team they had beaten by 31 less than two weeks earlier, it was fitting that Zubac found a way to make the biggest play of the rally.


The Clippers defeated the Lakers on Friday to earn the season series tiebreaker because of clutch late-game play. They’re among the league leaders too.

His 14 points, season-high 15 rebounds and half-dozen blocks marked something of a personal comeback for the 7-foot center.

Amid the Clippers’ 105-102 victory Friday against the Lakers, their first after the All-Star break, Zubac’s self-acknowledged lack of energy led him to struggle containing Dwight Howard. He watched the final 18 minutes on the sideline.

“I’m not saying I wasn’t locked in,” Zubac said. “I was not up to the game speed last game. And that kind of woke me up.”

Before tipoff in Houston, knowing the Rockets’ switch-heavy defense would lead to mismatches with smaller defenders guarding Zubac, Lue “said a little stuff to him today, got him fired up.”

“He said I should have 20 [points] and 15 [rebounds],” Zubac said. “He said ‘we need you back.’ Last game was a little rough for me. I was not physical enough, not aggressive.”

No one could make such a claim following a win that was the third consecutive for the Clippers (32-31), their fifth in their last six games and marked their first time above .500 since Jan. 3.

Zubac was on the court for virtually the entire final 14 minutes, the only exceptions a few possessions dictated by matchups, and it was little coincidence the Rockets (15-45) made one of eight shots in the paint in the fourth quarter.

“He really commanded that paint for us in the second half,” said guard Reggie Jackson, who scored a game-high 26 points.

Six of Houston’s first seven baskets were three-pointers to lead by nine after one quarter, then the Clippers awoke as backup center Isaiah Hartenstein scored eight points in less than two minutes to open the second quarter, the Clippers finding more comfort against Houston’s defensive scheme.

Just 51 seconds into the second half, the Clippers had erased their 13-point deficit and saw Zubac begin one of his most dominant stretches. He blocked Green — a springy contestant in the NBA’s slam-dunk competition just last week — at the rim leading to a transition dunk for the Clippers, then contested a missed layup by Eric Gordon and challenged Wood at the rim before flushing a powerful, right-handed dunk for a 62-61 lead midway through the third quarter.

“Some teams attack the paint more,” Zubac said. “So you’re going to have more chances to go for a block and to protect the rim. But it’s also about timing, and I think my timing today was good. And that’s it. They kept trying to get into the paint. That’s kind of their game. And I was ready for it.”

The Clippers defeated the Lakers on Friday to earn the season series tiebreaker because of clutch late-game play. They’re among the league leaders too.

With the Clippers rallying after trailing by nine early in the fourth quarter, Zubac deftly rolled to the free-throw line after setting a screen and caught a pass before firing it to a wide-open Amir Coffey in the corner for a three-pointer and an 87-83 lead as part of a 13-0 run. Less than two minutes later, Zubac blocked Green again at the rim, which turned into a three for teammate Robert Covington and a 90-88 Clippers lead with seven minutes to play.

Zubac’s performance came nearly two years after another cathartic effort in Houston, a 2020 game in which he dominated a small-ball Rockets lineup that, to Zubac at the time, validated his offseason work to address the way he had frustratingly been played off the floor by Golden State’s lethal small lineups in the 2019 playoffs.

“I wish I could play like this every game,” Zubac said. “It’s not Houston or anything, it’s just me being locked in and me being aggressive from the jump. But there’s a little part of where Houston switches one through five and they put a small on me, so I try to punish those switches and I think tonight, I could’ve done a better job.”

There is still room for improvement. But there was no margin for error with 16 seconds to play and a high leaper approaching the rim, only for Zubac to swat away the threat.